Introducing Literary Theory in Secondary Studies of American Literature

Imagining Controversial Criticism in Honors American Literature

As I imagine how I would teach potentially divisive schools of criticism such as Marxism/Phenomenology and Cultural Studies to my class of junior honors American literature students, many questions come to mind. First, how can I introduce these and other complex lenses in a way that is not only engaging and easily understandable but also objective and culturally sensitive? Working within a relatively homogenous classroom, how can I encourage all students to keep an open-minded and empathetic stance when looking through these lenses? What misconceptions will arise? How should I address them? Despite thoughtful planning, these questions and others may only be answered by trial and error.

Issues Specific to Marxism/Phenomenology and Cultural Studies

In my opinion, the way that I choose to frame the idea of literary criticism–and the many schools of thought which it encompasses–may make or break students’ willingness to buy into it. I can guess that the phrase itself, “literary criticism,” is an automatic turnoff for some students. In fact, many words and phrases that appear regularly in our critical readings could be aversive to some teenagers.

In relation to Marxism/Phenomenology, for instance, “Marxism” is quite a loaded term, carrying with it in some students’ minds all sorts of negative and perhaps misinformed connotations. Marx’s “class struggle” too could elicit immediate negativity, as many of my students–even those from disadvantaged backgrounds–have verbalized in the past their firm belief in both social mobility and the universal attainability of the “American Dream.” Along similar lines, the Hegelian master-slave dialectic might prove unpopular, as I have heard many students over the years flatly deny the existence of racism in our society. For some students, master-slave subjugation–literal or metaphorical, racial or otherwise–is a thing of the past.

Compared to Marxism/Phenomenology, Cultural Studies might be a bit easier to integrate into the high school classroom, as many of my students already appear to have a healthy skepticism about the media they consume. Similarly, we already read such essays as “The Pocahontas Myth,” which generally spurs great conversation. Nonetheless, certain Cultural Studies concepts could be somewhat unpalatable, such as Horkheimer and Adorno’s assertions that mass culture eliminates individual creativity (qtd. in Leitch 1115) and mass entertainment is simply a device to keep people happy enough to be submissive drones of capitalism (qtd. in Leitch 1119). In my experience, many high schoolers hold dear such concepts as individuality and self-determination, so to say that they do not exist is heresy.

Instructional Goals: A Foundation of Objectivity and Playfulness

As I consider how to delicately integrate literary criticism into my classroom, my first goal would be to introduce objectively and all at once the main schools of literary criticism. Using accessible, factual descriptions–like those provided by Deborah Appleman in Critical Encounters in Secondary English–could help to set the right tone for the class and give the basic terminology necessary to access the critical texts. Furthermore, starting this way would give both snapshots of each lens and a panorama of literary criticism as a field. Supplementary biographical resources and timelines could also add historical context without making students feel as if they should be swayed toward any particular view.

Once the variety and vast scope of literary criticism is established, I would like to ease into reading critical texts by trying first a fun, low-pressure activity with lenses. One activity I read about in Appleman and elsewhere involves revisiting well-known fairy tales through various critical lenses. This activity hits home the importance and fruitfulness of changing perspectives and–in its silliness–might make students more receptive to struggling through the challenging critical texts.

Works Cited

Appleman, Deborah. Critical Encounters in Secondary English: Teaching Literary Theory to Adolescents. 3rd ed. New York, NY: Teachers College Press, 2015. Print.

Leitch, Vincent B., William E. Cain, Laurie Finke, Barbara Johnson, John McGowan, T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting, and Jeffrey J. Williams, eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 2nd ed. New York, NY: W. W. Norton & Company, 2010. Print.


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